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Acute Diarrhea

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jun 6, 2022.

What do I need to know about acute diarrhea?

Acute diarrhea starts quickly and lasts a short time, usually 1 to 3 days. It can last up to 2 weeks.

What causes acute diarrhea?

  • Bacteria, such as E coli or salmonella
  • Viruses, such as rotavirus and norovirus
  • A parasite, such as giardia
  • Medicines, such as laxatives, antacids, or antibiotics
  • An allergy to lactose, soy, or gluten
  • Eating food or drinking water that contains germs
  • Medical treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiation

What other signs and symptoms might I have with acute diarrhea?

You may have 3 or more episodes of diarrhea. It may be hard to control your diarrhea. You may also have any of the following:

  • Fever and chills
  • Headache or abdominal pain
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Symptoms of dehydration such as thirst, decreased urination, dry skin, sunken eyes, or fast, pounding heartbeat

What does my healthcare provider need to know about my acute diarrhea?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms. He or she will ask what you have recently eaten and if you have traveled to other countries. Tell the provider what medicines you use or if you have been around anyone who is sick. Your healthcare provider may check you for signs of dehydration. He or she may also test your blood and bowel movement for infection.

How is acute diarrhea treated?

Acute diarrhea usually gets better without treatment. You may need any of the following if your diarrhea is severe or lasts longer than a few days:

  • Diarrhea medicine is an over-the-counter medicine that helps slow or stop your diarrhea. Do not take this medicine unless your healthcare provider says it is okay.
  • Antibiotics may be given to help treat an infection caused by bacteria.
  • Antiparasitics may be given to treat an infection caused by parasites.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

View more treatment options

How can acute diarrhea be managed?

  • Drink liquids as directed. Liquids will help prevent dehydration caused by diarrhea. Ask your healthcare provider how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. You may need to drink an oral rehydration solution (ORS). An ORS has the right amounts of water, salts, and sugar you need to replace body fluids. You can buy an ORS at most grocery stores and pharmacies.
  • Eat foods that are easy to digest. Examples include rice, lentils, cereal, bananas, potatoes, and bread. It also includes some fruits (bananas, melon), well-cooked vegetables, and lean meats. Do not eat foods high in fiber, fat, or sugar. Also, do not drink alcohol until your diarrhea is gone.

How can acute diarrhea be prevented?

  • Wash your hands often. Use soap and water. Wash your hands before you eat or prepare food. Also wash your hands after you use the bathroom. Use an alcohol-based hand gel when soap and water are not available.
  • Keep bathroom surfaces clean. This helps prevent the spread of germs that cause acute diarrhea.
  • Wash fruits and vegetables well before you eat them. This can help remove germs that cause diarrhea. If possible, remove the skin from fruits and vegetables, or cook them well before you eat them.
  • Cook meat and poultry as directed. Meat includes beef and pork. Poultry includes chicken, turkey, and duck.
    • Cook ground meat to 160°F.
    • Cook ground poultry, whole poultry, or cuts of poultry to at least 165°F. Remove the poultry from heat. Let it stand for 3 minutes before you eat it.
    • Cook whole cuts of meat other than poultry to at least 145°F. Remove the meat from heat. Let it stand for 3 minutes before you eat it.
  • Wash dishes that have touched raw meat or poultry with hot water and soap. This includes cutting boards, utensils, dishes, and serving containers.
  • Place raw or cooked meat in the refrigerator as soon as possible. Bacteria can grow in meat that is left at room temperature too long.
  • Do not eat raw or undercooked oysters, clams, or mussels. These foods may be contaminated and cause infection.
  • Drink only filtered or treated water when you travel. Do not put ice in your drinks. Drink bottled water whenever possible.

When should I seek immediate care?

  • You feel confused.
  • Your heartbeat is faster than usual.
  • Your eyes look deeply sunken, or you have no tears when you cry.
  • You urinate less than usual, or your urine is dark yellow.
  • You have blood or mucus in your bowel movements.
  • You have severe abdominal pain.
  • You are unable to drink any liquids.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • Your symptoms do not get better with treatment.
  • You have a fever higher than 101.3°F (38.5°C).
  • You have trouble eating and drinking because you are vomiting.
  • Your diarrhea does not get better in 7 days.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Further information

Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.